A teacher and a school psychologist who worked with a teenager accused of taking part in the August 2019 killing of Dionecia Valencia added more details on the teen’s self-esteem, maturity and vulnerability to peer pressure in court Friday morning on the third day of a hearing to determine if the 17-year-old boy will be tried as an adult.
Both witnesses were called by the teen’s defense attorney, Clint Parish of Sonora, in an effort to show the teen should remain in the juvenile system for incarceration and rehabilitation.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter earlier this week presented law enforcement and juvenile probation witnesses who testified the teen held Valencia while another teenager attacked her with a knife and an axe at a property off Big Hill Road outside Columbia, before starting a trailer fire intended to kill another woman who escaped.
Diane M. DelPriore worked with the teen for three years when he was in 6th through 8th grades at Soulsbyville Elementary. She has 29 years in special education. She is also a special education case manager at Sonora High.
“He was embarrassed by his speech impediment,” DelPriore said in response to questions from Parish. “I took him back and forth to school for two years after his family got evicted. I took him to school every day regardless of whether he was with his grandmother or the homeless shelter.”
Sometimes the boy was hungry when she picked him up, DelPriore said. She taught him three hours a day in math, reading and writing. He went from a non-reader at first to testing into regular education at Sonora High and Cassina High, DelPriore said. She knew the boy at Soulsbyville for roughly three full academic years, from fall 2013 through spring 2016, she estimated.
Hovatter objected frequently to Parish’s questions to DelPriore and to DelPriore’s responses, on grounds of relevance, hearsay, and lack of foundation. Hovatter also objected to the late addition of the school psychologist as a defense witness, but Judge Frank Dougherty overruled Hovatter and allowed Jason A. Sevier to testify.
Sevier worked with the teen off-and-on from as early as age 4 years old, when Sevier and a speech therapist evaluated the teen when he was in preschool; through the teen’s time in 6th to 8th grade at Soulsbyville Elementary; and as recently as fall 2019 after the teen was arrested and he was being held at a juvenile facility.
As a school psychologist for Tuolumne County’s Office of Education since 2004, Sevier has evaluated students for things including special education, counseling, crisis intervention, cognitive abilities and skills, maturity, child development, and intellectual capacity, Sevier said in sworn testimony from the witness stand.
DelPriore and Sevier, both defense witnesses, were not paid to appear in court. Dr. Phillip M. Hamm, a state-licensed psychologist who spoke in court Thursday and Friday, was hired and paid to appear by the teen’s defense attorneys.
The teenager is accused of first-degree murder, attempted murder, first-degree residential burglary and arson of an inhabited structure in the August 2019 death of Valencia, who was 39 years old when she died.
Last week, Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom ruled the other teen accused in Valencia’s death, Gage Stokes, who is also 17, will be tried as an adult. The next court date for Stokes is 1:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at the main Tuolumne County Courthouse building on Yaney Avenue.
Both boys were 16 when Valencia was killed in August.
The unnamed teen’s hearing is expected to continue Friday afternoon in a public courtroom on North Washington Street. Parish indicated he may call another witness Friday afternoon. Hovatter declined to say whether he will have any rebuttal witnesses.
If there is time, the defense and prosecution will present their closing arguments. Dougherty can announce a ruling on whether the unnamed teen will be tried as an adult when he wishes. Defense and prosecution expect a written decision from Dougherty.
Segerstrom’s 17-page written decision that Stokes will be tried as an adult came more than three weeks after a two-day hearing in June, in part because Segerstrom was involved in an accident in late June.
The Union Democrat newspaper is not naming the teen unless the local court rules he will be tried as an adult. See Saturday’s print or e-edition of The Union Democrat for more on this story.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.